How to Choose a Therapist and What to Expect
Therapy can be a wonderful experience but if you’re just starting out you may not know how to make that first step or what to look for. You may even feel anxious about setting up a first appointment. This is actually very common for a lot of people so hopefully I can provide some useful information for anyone feeling stuck but wanting to get started.
- Know what therapy is and isn’t
From treating specific mental conditions to navigating day to day challenges, therapists work with a variety of concerns. They have completed required training, are licensed by their state board and are expected to follow specific ethical and legal guidelines. Though a common misinterpretation, therapists do not give advice. Instead, they work as a guide, understanding the individual’s unique experience, trusting the ability to make one’s own choices. The therapist takes an unbiased stance using treatment modalities oriented in counseling theories to work towards goals. Advice, which may have its time and place, is different in that it tends to be opinion based. If you’re looking for advice, friends and relatives are often able offer their thoughts and shared experiences.
- Identify your concerns
Most therapists will ask you about what brings you to therapy to get an idea of your situation. Are you feeling sad? Nervous? Stressed? Did a difficult situation happen like a break up or a loss? Be prepared to answer some details about what you’d like help with, even if you’re not completely sure about it. If you are sure, is it important to you to find someone that is considered a specialist in this issue?
Once you have a basic idea of what you want to work on in therapy, consider if there is a specific style you are looking for. This could mean you’d like to work with someone who is direct vs. soft, or uses certain therapeutic interventions/modalities (like CBT), or has certain training in an area of interest. Do you care if your therapist is older or younger? Male or female? What about their ethnic background? Even if you’re not sure, think about who you click with.
One of the first things a therapist will aim to do with you is establish trust and rapport. While it can seem hard to trust a stranger, building the therapeutic alliance can help you feel assured and comfortable speaking in a confidential setting. As your trust strengthens, you can build on your therapeutic focus.
Some therapists accept insurance and others don’t. Think about your options and consider what works best for you economically.
Therapy typically requires a commitment to attendance and participation. Can you commit to scheduling, traveling, attending and participating in a weekly 60 minute appointment? Are you also ready to spend time outside of your session to reflect on your situation, make meaningful changes or complete homework? Are you also willing to stick with it even if you are asked to face some discomfort or difficult thoughts and feelings?
Many therapists offer consultations so they and new clients can ask questions and determine if their services would be a good fit. Sometimes the therapist may have limitations in treating certain conditions or can recognize if someone needs a different level of care. If so, they may offer a referral. They can also provide information about their style, background and approach so you can get to know them too.
- Searching for a new therapist
Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for, there are several ways to find a therapist. A Google or Yelp search for therapists in your area can be a good start but depending on where you are, the search results could provide inadequate or overwhelming numbers. There are a few websites designed for therapists to list their profiles for potential clients to view such as Psychology Today or Good Therapy. You can also search under your insurance network, ask your doctor for a referral or ask someone you know for a recommendation.
Similar with connecting to a style, most therapists believe that the right fit is important in therapy. Therapy is meant to benefit you and your goals, so you should feel like you’re in the right place. Consider calling a few that you think could work well with you and get a consultation. If you set up an initial intake session, you’ll have an opportunity to ask more questions in person and discuss in more detail what you’d like to work on. The therapist can offer information on their treatment approach in relation to your goals. It may take 1 to 2 sessions to decide if the fit is right and you can make this part of your discussion.
Consider what’s most important to you and go at your own pace.